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New York Lawmakers Fail To Legalize Marijuana: 'We Ran Out Of Time'

Dashed Arrow DAVID "DEE" DELGADO / GOTHAMIST

Following months of tense negotiations and a few last-minute glimmers of hope, New York lawmakers now say that the state will not be legalizing marijuana this year.

State Senator Liz Krueger, who sponsored the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, announced the news in a statement on Wednesday morning, the final day of the legislative session. "We came very close to crossing the finish line, but we ran out of time," Krueger said.

"This is not the end of the road, it is only a delay," the statement continued. "Unfortunately, that delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives up-ended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement measures before we inevitably legalize."

The reversal comes less than six months after Governor Andrew Cuomo touted the policy as a cornerstone of his legislative agenda, and on the heels of progressive victories in November that gave Democrats control of both legislative houses and the executive branch for the first time in a decade.

Still, most estimates found the legalization bill was at least one vote shy of passage in the State Senate, largely due to opposition from key Democrats, concentrated in Westchester and Long Island. Senators Roxanne Persuad of Brooklyn and Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens also said they were against the bill.

A poll from earlier this year found that two thirds of New York residents support allowing adults to legally possess marijuana, with majority support for the sale of legal pot found across the state, including in the suburbs.

In the view of some legalization advocates, Governor Andrew Cuomo bears the bulk of responsibility for the collapse of negotiations—both for his failure to persuade the fence-sitters in his own party, as well as his resistance to versions of the legislation that limited his power over how the drug's revenue would be spent. Discussions had at times stalled in recent weeks, sources said, due in part to the governor's objections to a provision in the bill requiring half the money from marijuana sales be reinvested in communities hit hardest by the drug war.

"Money and power is what killed the marijuana justice campaign," said Jeremy Saunders, co-director of VOCAL-NY, a grassroots group that has pushed for the bill in Albany over the last few months. "The governor easily could have gotten this done. But when Black legislators demanded reinvestment back into their communities...he committed to killing it. Racist arrests will continue and people with convictions will keep suffering all because of Cuomo and leaders like Heastie and Stewart-Cousins refusing to challenge his power."

A spokesperson for the Governor's Office did not respond to Gothamist's inquiries.

With just a few hours remaining in the session, Democrats are believed to be exploring a back-up bill, which would allow for the records of past low-level marijuana offenses to be sealed, while reducing the fine for non-criminal possession to $50. Supporters of legalization say the "decriminalization" measure still gives police discretion to make stops, and does little to address gaping racial disparities in low-level marijuana arrests.

In New York City, where NYPD officers have been directed to stop issuing criminal summonses to people caught with a small amount of weed, 674 city residents were arrested for low-level marijuana possession and another 500 received the non-criminal unlawful possession charge in the first four months of 2019.

Both Cuomo and Senate Democrats have acknowledged that decriminalization, which has been the law of New York since 1977, is not enough.

Added Krueger, "I have no doubt that prohibition is an outdated and irrational policy, and its days are numbered."

Additional reporting by Fred Mogul.

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